February 4th, 2015

The Congressional Elephant And The Marijuana Mouse And Science Collide

I was wrong to believe the political pundits who thought that Congress had bigger issues to address than reversing the ballot initiative in favor of legalizing marihuana in the District of Columbia. Harry Anslinger, who was probably turning in his grave following the D.C. vote, will be resting more easily now. As the head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (which became the Drug Enforcement Administration), Anslinger had played a major part in making marihuana illegal, culminating in the 1970 decision to place marihuana into Category 1 of the DEA Drug Classification Schedule.

Category 1 is reserved for substances that are deemed to have no medical value as well as being unsafe and having a high potential for abuse. Marijuana had in fact been used as a mainstream medication in the U.S. and throughout the world for hundreds of years before it was placed in Category 1. Two members of the House of Representatives leading the recent Congressional action, Andy Harris and Joe Pitts, in a December 12 Washington Post opinion piece, cite the “legal and scientific process” underlying the Category 1 decision. A closer look casts doubt on the scientific basis of the decision.

Sanjay Gupta has noted that Roger Egeberg, the Assistant Secretary of Health in 1970, made the decision based not on the presence of scientific evidence but on its absence.  Egeberg’s reassurance that studies then underway would ultimately lead to a more considered decision proved to be empty when most of the studies were not completed. Complicating the problem is that being placed in Category 1 made further research into the effects of marihuana – particularly the therapeutic ones – very difficult.

What is striking about the 1970 decision is how representative it was of the way in which the FDA and DEA have been confidently and sweepingly dismissive of scientific studies about legalizing marihuana. This included a 1999 study by the prestigious Institute of Medicine, funded by the White House Office of Drug Control Policy.

The “legality” of federal legislation making marijuana illegal has also had a questionable history. The first federal law restricting its use – The Marijuana Tax Act of 1937 – was passed by Congress based on Anslinger’s fabricated stories that marijuana provoked horrendous acts of violence by its users. Opposition by the American Medical Association was ignored. The Act was later declared unconstitutional in 1969, but by then Anslinger had helped institute other measures to prevent its use.

I would agree with the Congressmen that the process leading to decisions about the status of marijuana should be a legal one based on science. This might be possible, but only if the many unique barriers to legitimate research on this substance are lowered and the results of the research are examined in a balanced manner.

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